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Essay:The Scandal of the Activist Mind

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The Scandal of the Activist Mind
Essay.svg This essay is an original work by Smerdis of Tlön.
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At the head of all understanding, is realizing what is, and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.
—Solomon ibn Gabirol
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.
—Berthold Brecht

The world praises activism and activists -- people who make it their mission in life to reform their neighbors' behavior, especially by passing laws against it, and to call attention to what they believe are flaws in society -- far too much. Activism makes people less reasonable, and it makes politics, politicization, and moralization constant threats. I submit instead that:

In a moral victory, everybody loses.
  1. Activism encourages a feedback loop that tends to produce extremism and paranoia.
  2. This is a direct consequence of the need of activist organizations and leaders to cultivate outrage and encourage zealous fidelity to a cause.
  3. Activism induces ethical blind spots and inappropriate social behavior.
  4. Activism makes people more subject to cognitive biases, and intensifies their effects.
  5. Activism generates counter-activism, and thus tends to polarize and radicalize a society and its politics.
  6. These bad aspects of activism are inherent to activism, and entirely independent of the merits of any activist cause.
  7. No one is immune from these bad effects of activism.


Jack Thompson[edit]

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.
Eric Hoffer

Judge Dava J. Tunis, writing as the special referee in the Florida bar disciplinary case involving anti-game and anti-porn lawyer Jack Thompson, went beyond the Bar's recommendation for a ten year suspension from the practice of law, and came down in favor of permanent disbarment without leave to petition for reinstatement.

She wrote:

Over a very extended period of time involving a number of totally unrelated cases and individuals, the Respondent has demonstrated a pattern of conduct to strike out harshly, extensively, repeatedly and willfully to simply try to bring as much difficulty, distraction and anguish to those he considers in opposition to his causes. He does not proceed within the guidelines of appropriate professional behavior, but rather uses other means available to intimidate, harass, or bring public disrepute to those whom he perceives oppose him.


An "activist" is a person who makes enemies lists. Activism frequently results in a feedback loop that is harmful to the well being of the activist. After all, if you have a cause, it is likely that someone will applaud you for taking a stand. Eventually, the world becomes black and white. Your only true friends are those who are willing to applaud your every action. Everyone else is an enemy. This seems to be one of the things going on in Jack Thompson's case.

Dr. Karl Menninger called paranoia the inoperable cancer of psychiatry: and paranoia is also one of the fruits of activism. Frankly, Mr. Thompson seems to be engaged in behavior that seems a classic example of the sort of thing you expect from people who require psychiatric treatment. His conviction of self-importance (i.e. "ideas of reference[1]") leads him to self defeating behavior:

Throughout these proceedings the Respondent faxed his pleadings, motions and correspondence to the Bar and the Referee herein. On a number of occasions the faxes Respondent sent to the Bar were incomplete. When the Bar requested the missing pages of the fax be resent, the Respondent stated the Bar was not to “expect any courtesies” from him. Thus, at the case management conference held on August 30, 2007, the Court granted the Bar’s Motion to Prohibit and issued a written order dated September 5, 2007, that “[a]ll communications and filings by the parties shall be sent by United States mail henceforth. The parties are not to fax each other herein.” . . .
The Respondent has continued to send this Court a multitude of e-mails, faxes and communications, many of which constitute thirdparty letters or pleadings not directly related to this cause. This Court estimates that the Respondent has sent over five hundred (500) communications to the undersigned in contravention of the September 6, 2007 Omnibus Order.

and led the referee to conclude that he was in fact incorrigible: "Respondent has repeatedly stated in these proceedings that he will not change his conduct. Thus, an enhanced disbarment is appropriate."

I've read some of Thompson's filings, and frankly they do not read like anything a lawyer would have written. They read like the screeds written by stir-crazy jailhouse lawyers, and are filled with the same malicious fantasies of persecution. Thompson has filed pornographic pictures with various courts, apparently seeking to insinuate that any who would oppose him favors their publication. It seems clear that Thompson is an activist who has crossed the line, and veered into the realms of psychopathology. Let's hope and pray that he gets the treatment he needs. It may require a criminal prosecution to get him into treatment.

How to lose friends and alienate people[edit]

Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.
H. L. Mencken
What the world needs now is more people pointing fingers at other people and shouting.

Some years ago, my father made a small cash donation to the Republican National Committee.

They are punishing him for his generosity. The caller ID log discloses that he receives anywhere from two to four fund raising calls from "REPUB NAT COM" a day, and usually one from "FREE ENTERP COA", whatever that is. Emails sent to the Republican National Committee, asking them for relief from this harassment, have had no effect.

Apparently the Democrats are just as punishing to their supporters. I asked.

The current point is not about the relative merits of the Republican or Democratic organizations, though. Both parties are of one mind on this, apparently. Personally, I am much more reluctant to give to charity or sign a petition if my home or email address or phone number will be harvested and put on a Sucker List. Every worthy organization that you support will triple your burden of junk mail. You will be punished for your gesture of good will and support.

The point is that political activism induces an ethical blind spot. There is no other explanation I can imagine for this clueless behavior. Someone's commitment to the cause is so total that they somehow cannot see that this kind of activity is inappropriate, and is likely to be resented by their own allies.

Politics is bad for your mind, period. Political commitments of sufficient zeal make you a bad citizen, and it doesn't matter what the cause is. Sufficient engagement in any cause erodes the faculties of empathy that give rise to common courtesy. This transcends all political boundaries.

The scandal of the activist mind[edit]

Normally, anything done in the name of 'the kids' strikes me as either slightly sentimental or faintly sinister—that redolence of moral blackmail that adheres to certain charitable appeals and certain kinds of politician. (Not for nothing is baby-kissing the synonym for public insincerity.)
Christopher Hitchens
Madness takes its toll. Please have exact change.

I probably need to expatiate on that subject a bit more. But the basic problems caused by activists all stem from the fact that they are dissatisfied with the way things are and have various ideas in their heads about the way things ought to be. They therefore use politics in an attempt to change the world. They don't, of course: it won't budge. But they don't give up trying, either.

In an ideal republic, the policeman on the corner is a friend and ally in time of trouble: because there is no major discontinuity between the ideals espoused by public law, and the way people conduct their private affairs. Law is held in check and only prohibits unreasonable actions. To the extent that you might not want him poking around in your garden, blame an activist.

Activists are why the speed limits don't reflect the way people actually drive, and are instead set to the way somebody thinks they ought to be driving. Maybe it's for "safety", or maybe for "conservation". It makes no difference. There's always some fine and righteous reason why what they want is better than what you would, and if asked they will recite it at some length from memory.

You don't like the human fondness for getting drunk or stoned. It might be unfortunate. So you pass a law, and turn the policeman into the enemy of your neighbors.

And so on, ad infinitum. Activists turn government, which ideally ought to be the same from one decade to the next, into something everyone has to monitor, the subject of constant attention. Ideally, the Congress should sit once a decade, for a couple weeks. But there are too many people out there who have all sorts of wonderful ideas about how you ought to be running your life, and they all want to be heard.

Journalists love activists. Without a perpetual motion government, some days they'd have to run cake recipes on the front page. So they call up some activists, who are eager to give an earful of their opinions about what's wrong with society and their great plans to fix it. And the paper runs an "investigative" article on the Scandal of X and the editorial column issues a Call for Reform.

And so it comes to pass that selling loose cigarettes on the street is a crime punishable by death.

All of the activists, from the animal rights nuts to the anti-abortion nuts, want the government to declare war on some subset of their neighbors. All of them imagine it's mighty important, and needs to be done now. I repeat: "an activist is a person who makes enemies lists."

Activists, broadly defined, are responsible for most of the trouble caused by government:

-- from the war in Iraq (lobbied for by the Israeli government and its apologists for some time)

-- to the reprehensible metric system (the epitome of top-down "rational planning," whose flaws are the result of its arbitrary, lofty abstraction and consequent neglect of human scale.)

Yes, all activism's bad; or at least, all activism has hidden costs.

Disgusting moralization[edit]

When you put down someone who's "wrong," you feel "better," pumping up your self-esteem. If you use moral aggression to exterminate "bad" others, as in Auschwitz or the Old Testament, you can even feel godlike.
—Kirby Farrell
Nur für Juden, Tylko dla Żydów: "Only for Jews".
Jim Crow era sign: "Colored waiting room."
Achtung! Rauchen verboten!

In human social psychology, "moralization" has a specialized sense, originally used in this sense by Paul Rozin. It refers to the change that occurs when human activities or qualities, which once were morally indifferent, get invested with moral significance. As such, it seeks to recruit the moralizing subroutines in the human brain. And those subroutines are better left alone. [2]

Disgust is one such moral emotion. Because the evolved primate mind lacked anything as sophisticated as the germ theory of disease, disgust provides us instead with a set of emotional subroutines based on purity and contamination. Disgust is supposed to keep us away from disgusting matter and inedible food like vomit, animal feces, rotten meat, and baked cauliflower with Velveeta.

But disgust is one of the most dangerous patterns in the human brain. It can easily be turned on your neighbors. Think about why segregation was once thought by many to be worth the trouble. It was never free from costs. Why a separate drinking fountain for African-Americans? Why separate benches and ghettos for Jews? Hard as it may be to imagine, the racists were acting as if they fancied being Black or Jewish were somehow contagious. The literature of Anti-Semitism is, as Susan Sontag has pointed out, rich in disease metaphors. Ignorant crackers once thought being Black was catching. The recruitment of disgust against your neighbor is the heart of bigotry.[3]

The other human moral emotions are just as dangerous. We have a pattern of behavior which Robert Trivers has called "moralistic aggression" or "moral aggression". According to Trivers, this subroutine arose to punish perceived violations of our inner sense of fair play; and we of course have that too. Moral aggression is the deliberate recruitment of moral disapproval against specific targets, mobbing them, attempting to shame the target into compliance, drive the target away, or encourage violence against them. [4]

Armed with this knowledge, we can distinguish activism from more productive types of political activity. During the middle of the twentieth century, we got Prohibition repealed, and made significant steps towards the de-moralization of drinking "alcohol". (But thanks to the mostly male mothers of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, we have done some backsliding here.)[5]

We are slowly making progress on the de-moralization of homosexuality. Progress on this front necessarily entails the de-recruitment of disgust towards homosexual behavior, which anti-gay activists of course seek to recruit with bogus appeals to nature. Desegregation and the civil rights movement likewise entailed the de-recruitment of disgust against African-Americans. We're slowly making progress towards the de-moralization of marijuana. Political activity that brings about a better world involves the calming of the moral emotions. But....

Peace, peace; but there is no peace[edit]

Unrelieved, self-righteous refusal to compromise excites moral aggression. It is an invitation to a cycle of charges of hypocrisy. It brings other dangers as well: cultivating distaste for politics, replicating the weightlessness of Independence, above all, forgetting the moral dimension of a compromising disposition, which is our ultimate protection against stupidity and cruelty.
—Nancy Rosenblum

Activism seeks to excite the moral emotions. Look at our failures to defend freedom. The worst example, as shall be seen, is cigarette smoking: once happily considered to be a personal choice. It started with claims that smoking was "bad for you," and invited people to resent paying for the care of ill smokers through taxes and insurance. That, quite simply, is the canonical form of moral aggression. Then it got worse: we have government campaigns inviting us to see smokers as disgusting and contaminating, and laws to segregate them. You should have a problem with this. Too many people do not.

Activists want us to see all sorts of things that were once considered morally indifferent, from pinup calendars to video games, from fur coats to Cadillacs, from hamburgers to French fries, as morally problematic. It seeks to recruit negative moral emotions towards them, and towards your neighbors who have different tastes. Activism, by its nature, always moves in the wrong direction. It stirs up new bigotries and creates new targets for moral judgment. It necessarily includes moral aggression, and as such also excites an urge to retaliate.

Ordinarily, our moral emotions are tempered with social emotions that prevent us from being cruel to our neighbors. Activists want to override that; whatever the activist is upset about is always going to be that big a deal. Compromise with activists is impossible, an appeasement that only buys temporary peace: the activist still considers you the devil, and nothing short of eradication of the targeted behavior will be acceptable.

No newly minted cause is worth these costs. Again, an activist is a person who makes enemies lists. Activism, by being activism, seeks to create new targets for group disapproval. That's no way to treat your neighbor. Activism will always do more harm than good.

Rest in peace, Terrie Hall[edit]

A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can you want?
Oscar Wilde

I understand that the womanwp who featured in the grossly offensive video from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) linked has recently passed away. May she rest in peace. She was terribly misused by fanatics who told her that she was doing the world a favor.

Trust me. You do not want to open this link. It is grossly offensive and in the worst possible taste.

This is an interesting rhetorical problem. I really think you would be happier if you do not watch this video. If you've seen it, you've probably figured out what it is, and are excused. The link has to be there so you don't have to take my word for any of this. If you get nightmares easy, don't watch this. If you have bad memories of a loved one's illness, DON'T watch it. Please accept my word here. If you don't, you were warned. It isn't anything other than ugly, and not very interesting, and grossly offensive, and more than anything else, obnoxiously overbearing.[6]

"He brings disease": 1913 anti-immigration cartoon.

This is what fanaticism does to you. You fancy you have a message and a cause that's so important that it entitles you to ignore common decency. This "public service" advertisement coarsens public discourse to a level I refuse to accept. This is quite simply morally wrong. Look at what it's done to our guardians of public health. They've told us that smoking is bad for you for more than fifty years. Smoking decreased, but some people continued to smoke. Then they banned advertising and required cigarette makers to malign their product on the packaging. Smoking decreased, but some people continued to smoke! So they resort to regaling the public with images of people suffering from disfiguring diseases. The fact that some people continue to smoke!!! gets them so hot under the collar that the part of their brains that governs good taste and appropriate public behavior got switched off.[7]

I see absolutely no difference between the public activity of the CDC and the Westboro Baptist Church. The only difference between "If you smoke, you might die horribly" and "God hates fags" that I can see is that it's now fashionable to accept the kind of prejudice this ad seeks to encourage. They are quite simply trying to make some of your neighbors the objects of disgust. This is the heart of bigotry, and what distinguishes it from mere belief: you find certain other people disgusting, repulsive, contaminating. Why else were there two drinking fountains?

It was, no doubt, an evil genius who invented second-hand smoke. What a lovely way to persuade the majority of your fellow citizens that a certain minority -- who are already blamed for leeching more than their fair share of public tax money by their filthy and unhealthy habits -- are even worse than that. They contaminate their surroundings by their very presence. If you so much as smell one -- and they can be identified by smell -- you are in danger of catching their disfiguring diseases, their leprosy.

These agendas follow a predictable path. After the lots are drawn, the group that drew the black spot will be portrayed as weak in will, shiftless, and unwilling to conform to better themselves. They're sucking at the public till because of their evil way of life, which is disease-ridden and unclean, and I have to pay for it.

Step two, where we're at now, is to portray them as contaminating and requiring segregation. Not only does their own weakness put themselves at risk of loathsome disfiguring diseases, but anyone who comes into contact with them is also in danger.

The purpose of this part of the campaign is to justify violence, which of course is step three. It will begin with sporadic assaults, which are already happening. As soon as people get the idea that there's a group that can be attacked with impunity, young men who get their kicks this way will party on. Even those who publicly deplore their work will still blame the victims; their filthy customs brought it on themselves.

Step four is state violence: rounding people up for forced conversions of various sorts. Let's face it: the people who thought it was a good idea to broadcast that ad are quite capable of this. While a single smoker remains, their task is incomplete. When the government is pointing out an identifiable group of its citizens and identifying them as subhumans who contaminate all they surround, history suggests that this isn't likely to end well.

Hello, Hitler[edit]

El nazismo, intrínsecamente, es un hecho moral, un despojarse del viejo hombre, que está viciado, para vestir el nuevo.

Nazism is intrinsically an act of morality, a purging of corrupted humanity, to dress him anew.
—Jorge Luis Borges, Deutsches Requiem

Aaaaaaaand I just Godwinned myself. Why does Godwin's Law work, anyways? Activism needs to keep the fires of outrage stoked. I am, in fact, outraged by the CDC's anti-smoking campaign. Smokers are, unfortunately, simply today's chosen victim of the necessary bigotry of the human race. People have a basic need to identify an Other, a Bad Example, a scapegoat to bear the burden of their own guilt. I should just be happy it isn't me. And outrage hurts your brain; it makes you less rational, induces stress reactions, and makes you more subject to cognitive biases.

This is one of the ways in which all activism is bad for you. And to the extent that this essay constitutes activism, activism is bad for me.

Further reading[edit]

Moralistic goals usually come bundled with beliefs that they correspond to better consequences (a phenomenon that has been called “belief overkill”).... When moralistic goals play out in politics, they interfere with (other) people’s achievement of their own goals.
People may think of their role as citizens in terms of persuading others rather than making decisions, and some may think that others are most persuaded when all the arguments are on one side.... They may also think that better thinkers are more sure, with no conflict. Insofar as they think about argumentation, they may be deluding themselves. Most political argumentation seems more designed to elicit action in those who already agree rather than to change anyone’s mind.
(T)he foxes' tolerance of many viewpoints, and awareness of their own ignorance, gives them the appearance of knowing less than they actually do, and lessens their influence on policy and society; and the hedgehogs' certainty, and clear, concise answers to complex problems, gives them the appearance of knowing more than they actually do, and increases their influence.
When you put down someone who's "wrong," you feel "better," pumping up your self-esteem. If you use moral aggression to exterminate "bad" others, as in Auschwitz or the Old Testament, you can even feel godlike.
History groans with mass movements and cults that have thrived on predatory righteousness. The self-intoxicating effects of moral aggression stand out in Philip G. Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experimentwp, which had to be halted early when student volunteers in the roles of prison guards began slipping into sadism and the inmates’ depression became self-confirming.
It is doubtful if the oppressed ever fight for freedom. They fight for pride and power — power to oppress others. The oppressed want above all to imitate their oppressors; they want to retaliate.
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theater of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.
The concern with shared moral values is laudable, but by conflating morality with panic, these writers (both, ironically, on the political left) have committed themselves to reproducing moral panics uncritically.
If the work of gathering evidence and reasoning through thorny, polarizing political questions is actually the process by which we trick ourselves into finding the answers we want, then what’s the right way to search for answers? How can we know the answers we come up with, no matter how well-intentioned, aren’t just more motivated cognition? How can we know the experts we’re relying on haven’t subtly biased their answers, too? How can I know that this article isn’t a form of identity protection? Kahan’s research tells us we can’t trust our own reason. How do we reason our way out of that?
Righteous indignation undermines civil discourse and often corrodes efforts aimed at reasonable compromise. When righteous indignation is invoked, conversation stops and violence may begin. For the indignant party, reason may be suspended.
We are tempted to feed our appetite for more and more rightness by marking off, rejecting, or eliminating—as in vomiting or defecating—more and more of what is wrong. Often the aggression is directed at a real ill such as alcoholism or sexual disease, but ends up injuring healthy people too, as in Prohibition or America's puritanical hostility toward sex.
Is it possible that some social advocacy and social justice efforts result in the same types of pernicious effects on a societal scale so that efforts to build cooperation instead inhibit it? We often do not know, because well-meaning advocates have made raising those questions a taboo.
Unrelieved, self-righteous refusal to compromise excites moral aggression. It is an invitation to a cycle of charges of hypocrisy. It brings other dangers as well: cultivating distaste for politics, replicating the weightlessness of Independence, above all, forgetting the moral dimension of a compromising disposition, which is our ultimate protection against stupidity and cruelty. That activists can be extremist in this sense, not just in the “spatial” sense of taking positions off-center, underscores compromisingness as a moral disposition of ordinary partisans and unyieldingness its corruption.
Among all populations there will be pockets of extreme moralizing altruists willing to make high investments in others, investments involving great personal risk.
Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you're on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it's like stabbing your soldiers in the back—providing aid and comfort to the enemy.

Notes[edit]

  1. See the Wikipedia article on ideas of reference.
  2. Moralization, in Morality and Health (Routledge, 1997)
  3. Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor
  4. Robert Trivers, "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism, Quarterly Review of Biologyv. 46.1 (Mar., 1971), pp. 35-57
  5. I drink beer, wine, whiskey, tequila, and much else beside; but I haven't drunk any alcohol since that incident with the watermelon and Everclear, which was more than thirty years ago.
  6. It's the same problem faced by people who build long term storage facilities for deadly radioactive waste. How do you scare future generations, who may not preserve knowledge of our language, away from the 100,000 year old toxic dump without making it seem powerful, spooky, and interesting?
  7. I haven't smoked cigarettes for thirty years. But if this question has occurred to you, it's further evidence that this kind of campaign is morally wrong.